A fantastical, fictionalized retelling
Tim was like any other graduate of Oxford University, working as a physicist at CERN in Switzerland: thin, introspective, handsome in that professorial sort of way, prone to long hours sitting at his desking quietly talking to himself, and predestined to that strange mix of impatience and sarcastic humor found in everyone raised in Southwest London.
Tim was the eldest of four children, born, admittedly, to the most unusual set of parents.
Not only was his father, Conway Berners-Lee, a mathematician and computer programmer in the early 1950s, but so was Tim’s mother, Mary Lee Woods. Both Conway and Mary worked as computer programmers for Ferranti, a British electrical engineering company.
As family lore told it, a friend had brought Conway to the Ferranti holiday party in 1952 and Conway had found himself a wife and job in one fantastic evening. By July of 1954 Conway and Mary were married, and Conway was happily ensconced at Ferranti, working alongside Mary on the Ferranti Mark I, “the world’s first commercially available general-purpose computer.”
If ever there were a child conceived to lead the human race into the digital information age, that child was their first born: Tim.
As a kid, Tim took an interest in these computer machines that his parents worked with. When he inquired as to what it was that they both did all day, Conway and Mary would patiently explain that their job was to work with the limitations of the machines to create systems that helped humans be more efficient.
“You see, the machines don’t think like we humans do,” Mary would tell Tim. “Machines can only understand information linearly. They organize it into tables and hierarchies. We humans aren’t like that. We are intuitive. We can connect bits of information together that don’t seem at all related. Our jobs as programmers is to adapt our thinking into a system and structure that the computer can understand.”
Though Tim understood the distinction his mother was making between humans and machines, he was frustrated by it.
Why couldn’t the machines learn to think and interact like humans, in a more chaotic, non-linear way? Couldn’t there be a different way to organize the information? Something less rigid, more organic. Less filing system, more spider web.
By 1973 Tim was at Queens College at Oxford, studying for a physics degrees.
As young college aged men are wont to do, Tim found himself in love with a bright, wonderfully elusive literature student with a penchant for old mystery stories. Although their romance was fleeting, she imparted to Tim a gift that would have a major impact on Tim’s future trajectory: a vintage copy of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine from 1948 featuring a short story by an Argentine author named Jorge Luis Borges, titled “The Garden of Forking Paths.”
Although not much of a literature fan himself, Tim was enraptured with Borges’ idea of a garden of forking paths, a system where the forking took place not in space but in time. Each fork or decision led to a series of different outcomes, creating a wide, fractal-like labyrinth of possible outcomes, a system of rules that nonetheless came much closer to resembling actual human communication and interaction, than systems normally do.
Tim soon learned that he wasn’t the only one in love with this idea, and that it had inspired the creation of a computer concept called “hypertext,” which was a way of connecting computer documents without creating a strict organization hierarchy, and instead, creating a large, web of interconnected nodes of information.
By 1980, Tim had landed as an independent contractor at the headquarters for the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, in Geneva, Switzerland.
On a lark, Tim proposed to his manager that he prototype a hypertext system for the CERN community that would allow all of the researchers to access one another’s research papers. A computer based academic library of sorts, that allowed researchers to share their research in a loosely organized manner using hypertext and the network of interconnected computers that they had access to at CERN.
His manager found the idea compelling, and set Tim to work building a system titled ENQUIRE that enabled all the researchers at CERN to view each other’s work and navigate between documents via hypertext links.
But this childhood dream of Tim’s still gnawed at him. The ENQUIRE system had given the researchers at CERN a way to access one another’s work and organically navigate from one document to another, but the system was still closed. Confined to the four walls of the heavily guarded CERN headquarter. They were, after all, nuclear physicists.
At night Tim found himself awake, dreaming of a new version of ENQUIRE. A universal system, one common place where all humans could share information. In this system hyperlinks could point to hypertext anywhere: something personal, local, or global. The information could be highly polished, or just a rough draft, quickly jotted down and shared. The system would give humans a way to communicate and connect via machines in a way that more closely resembled how humans actually interacted.
And unlike the written word, this system would become a much truer map of human interaction. It would become a mirror of how humans play, socialize, and share information, allowing humans and computers to document and analyze human’s most core behavior.
In 1988 Tim was back at CERN, this time as a fellow. Again, he approached his manager with a proposal. This time he would create a new system that would allow anyone in the world to access information from anyone else in the world.
Thanks in part to the success of the ENQUIRE system, his manager didn’t hesitate to give Tim the green light. So now, the question was: how was he going to translate that dream into a concrete reality?
Since the goal was universality, a system so intuitive to humans that it could be adopted and implemented by almost anyone, the key was simplicity in design.
Tim needed create a program that would emulate Borges’ incredibly complex system of forking paths, a worldwide choose your own adventure story.
People would need to be able to easily read content.
They would need to be able to easily edit content and add new content.
And then they would need to be able to link that content to other content, their own and others.
He would need to build a tree of information that people could freely add to, link by link.
And he would have to believe that the human impulse to share information would be strong enough to drive wide adoption, because the web would only be as strong as its participants.
First, he would create a shared, universal format for the information.
Although plain text was available to everyone on all computers, he knew that with its total lack of formatting it would never do.
It was no fun to read. Boring. No way to distinguish between different areas or different parts of the text.
No, he would need something more specific. Something uniquely suited to this hypertext environment. Something that would allow browser to understand what each different part of the content was and easily link from one document to another.
He would call it Hyper Text Markup Language, HTML for short.
It would include all the important stuff for hypertext documents. There would need to be paragraphs (<p> tags), and headings (<h1> through <h6> at least). And lists, unordered ones (<ul>) and ordered ones (<ol>) and we can’t forget list items (<li>)! And shouldn’t every document have a title (<title>)?
Most importantly, there would be anchors. Anchors (<a>) that either referenced other areas of the same document, or better yet, could reference other documents. These anchors would create the links between documents that laid the foundation for this web.
Second, he would need to create a piece of software that could serve as a window of sorts. This software would need to access hypertext on servers anywhere and display it in an easy to read format, and allow the user to hop from one hypertext document to another.
He would call this piece of software a browser, and it would allow readers to browse his web of hypertext information.
Third, he would need to create a method for accessing the information using the browsers via the Internet.
He would call it the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP).
Lastly, he would need to create some rules, or at least, guidelines. Guidelines of behavior to standardize how information was presented, though not what was presented.
This could be a free for all of information. But not an information free for all.
People should follow some conventions. They should include their names. And provide the most up-to-date information as possible.
And they should make the reader aware of how up to date that information is by providing a publication date. A timestamp of sorts. Something to orient the reader and give them some reference to what they are reading and how timely it is.
Finally, Tim would create the ultimate meta prototype: the first ever website would be dedicated, of course, to educating people about the Web, how to adopt and use it.
On April 30, 1993 the system was finally ready. He published the site, made all of his code freely available, and CERN released a statement that Tim Berner-Lee’s “World Wide Web” was now available to everyone.
And Tim let his dream run free and signed it with a message that perfectly foretold the many many such messages to come, in ALL CAPS he wrote:
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: Though this story is largely based on facts it is a fictionalized retelling of the creation of the web. Where facts are true, I have provided sources. The rest is artistic license!
Adda is not only the CEO and founder of Skillcrush, but also an instructor. With her self-taught tech skills, she’s worked on building sites for the New York Times, ProPublica and MTV.